(New York) - Uzbek authorities should ensure the security of the human rights activist Gulshan Karaeva, who was attacked and threatened after she publicly refused to become a government informant, Human Rights Watch said today.
Karaeva, head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) branch in Kashkadarya, a region in southern Uzbekistan, published a letter on the internet on May 5, 2012, to report that she had refused a demand by Uzbekistan’s National Security Services (SNB) to cooperate with the agency as an informant. Days later, she experienced a series of attacks and threats on the street.
“Mob violence and acts of intimidation against rights defenders through apparent government proxies have become all too common in Uzbekistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Gulshan Karaeva’s experience bears the classic hallmarks of an organized attempt to silence a government critic.”
Uzbek authorities need to put a stop to harassment of human rights defenders and ensure their fundamental right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should investigate the harassment and threats against Karaeva, and hold those responsible to account.
On May 5, Karaeva received a phone call from someone who identified himself as a representative of Uzbekistan’s SNB, she told Human Rights Watch. The person asked Karaeva to work for the agency as an informant. The man told Karaeva that she would be “safer” if she agreed.
Based on previous interrogations by and interactions with the SNB, Karaeva understood this request to mean that she would be expected to report regularly on her human rights activities and those of others in civil society. This phone call followed several similar conversations SNB officials had with Karaeva in 2009 and 2010, when the government detained her on various pretexts as she was carrying out human rights work.
Later the same day, Karaeva issued a public statement on an internet list-serve and to independent websites that she had refused the SNB’s proposal to cooperate as an informant. Karaeva is known for her reporting on the ill-treatment and torture of imprisoned human rights activists and on the use of forced child labor in the Uzbek cotton sector.
On May 19, as Karaeva entered a pharmacy in the city of Karshi, two women approached and began screaming obscenities at her. Karaeva asked them to lower their voices and to move their conversation to a nearby store. After they entered the store, the two women began to hit Karaeva on the head and attempted to pull her out of the shop to a place where several cars were parked and waiting.
“They beat me and screamed that I was seeing their husbands as a mistress,” she told Human Rights Watch. She got help from people around her to push the women out of the store, and managed to get away. She reported the incident to officials at her local police station, who claimed that the incident was “not within their jurisdiction,” she said.
Later that evening, unknown assailants sprayed the gate and walls of Karaeva’s home with explicit and abusive graffiti, insulting and threatening her. Karaeva called the police the next morning, but they responded only a day later, on May 21. They told her that she should come to the local neighborhood committee to provide further details, but Karaeva did not go as she feared the incident with the women might be used as a pretext to detain her or open criminal charges against her.
As of May 24, no representative of any law enforcement agency had come to investigate the violent attack on Karaeva or the defacement of her property, and no criminal investigation has been opened.
On May 21, at approximately 9 p.m., an unidentified man chased Karaeva as she was buying food in a local market. Since these incidents, suspicious-looking people have been loitering in front of her home.
Karaeva’s denunciation of the SNB’s demand for her to become an informant was widely circulated on the internet, and she believes the harassment is a result of her decision to make the agency’s demands public.
Karaeva, 34, is one of the country’s youngest human rights activists. She has repeatedly been targeted for her outspoken human rights work.
Based in Karshi, she has reported on the practice of forced child labor in the cotton sector and the ill-treatment and torture of imprisoned human rights activist Gaibullo Jalilov.
Together with another Karshi-based activist, Nodir Akhatov, Karaeva was detained by local police and threatened with criminal charges in the fall of 2011, while attempting to document the use of forced child laborto harvest cotton in southern Uzbekistan.
In apparent retaliation for her reporting on the mistreatment and torture of Jalilov, in 2010 and 2011, local authorities threatened to trump-up “religious extremism” charges against her – criminal charges that often carry sentences of more than 10 years.
In December 2009, Karaeva was placed under effective house arrest while attempting to meet with a Human Rights Watch researcher in Karshi.
Civil society in Uzbekistan faces frequent threats, intimidation, and harassment. For many years, human rights defenders, independent journalists, and members of the political opposition have been subjected to physical attacks, threatened by local authorities, and placed under house arrest. At least 10 human rights defendersare serving lengthy prison terms on politically-motivated charges, with numerous other independent journalists and political opposition figures unlawfully behind bars.
Acts of mob violence and intimidation against independent civil society activiststhat appear to be incited, condoned, or orchestrated by authorities occur frequently in Uzbekistan. For example, on March 5, a local mob prevented another rights activist, Abdullo Tojiboi-ugli, from protesting outside the residence of President Islam Karimov. Tojiboi-ugli had held a similar protest a week earlier outside Tashkent’s city hall.
As he left his home on March 5, approximately 10 men and women from his Chilanzar neighborhood (mahalla) governing committee confronted him and ordered him to return home. He ignored them and kept going. Then the same residents and the president of the neighborhood committee pulled up next to him in two cars.
Tojiboi-ugli told Human Rights Watch that a local resident jumped out of the first car, grabbed him, and violently dragged him toward the car, tearing his coat. With the help of other men, the resident succeeded in pushing Tojiboi-ugli into the car. He was taken to the office of the neighborhood committee, where the local committee members shouted at him and tore up his banners.
“They threatened to oust me from the neighborhood and put me in a psychiatric hospital,” he said. Despite Tojiboi-ugli’s calls for an investigation, Uzbek authorities have yet to question any of the people allegedly involved in this incident.
“Using government proxies to intimidate or harass a rights defender is no less a violation of human rights than if carried out by police or security forces,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbek authorities should ensure that those who carried out the attacks are identified and held accountable, and immediately ensure Gulshan Karaeva’s and her family’s safety.”